Johnson: Tech offense has potential to be as good as 2014

Georgia Tech’s offense in 2014 was not only coach Paul Johnson’s best but one of the best in school history.

The Yellow Jackets set school records for rushing yards per carry, rushing yards per game and rushing yards in a season. They tied the NCAA record for third-down conversion rate. They finished the season by incinerating Mississippi State, setting an Orange Bowl record with 452 rushing yards.

In that light, Johnson gave a noteworthy appraisal of his offense’s potential as the Jackets began preparing for a Thursday night matchup with No. 5 Clemson at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“We’re way better than we were a year ago,” Johnson said of his offense Sunday. “And probably not as good as we were at the end of ’14. So, somewhere in between. I think we have the capability of getting to where we were in ’14.”

The Jackets have shown flashes of that potential in starting out 3-0. In the opener against Boston College, after averaging 3.7 yards per play through the first 56 minutes of the game, the Jackets drove 59 yards in 11 plays for the game-winning touchdown, keeping the drive alive with a 22-yard completion on 4th-and-19. A-back Qua Searcy has been a breakout player, averaging 11.5 yards per touch. B-back Dedrick Mills showed power and determination in scoring three rushing touchdowns in Saturday’s 38-7 win over Vanderbilt.

The Jackets rifled through Vanderbilt, lighting up the Commodores with two pass plays of 75 yards or more. One out of every nine plays went for 20 yards or more. One out of every 3.7 went for 10 or more.

“They came out here and obviously gave us more than we were expecting,” Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham said.

Johnson’s appraisal would seem to raise, at least externally, the ceiling on what this team, picked to finish sixth in the ACC Coastal Division in a preseason media poll, can accomplish. The 2014 offense was the driving force behind the Jackets’ 11 wins. Tech won the ACC Coastal Division, beat Georgia and came within a possession of winning the school’s fourth ACC championship.

Clemson will give Tech by far its best test of its ability.

“I think this is a big opportunity for the team just to kind of not only see where we’re at, but just try to make an impression and try to go out there and just play as hard as we can,” quarterback Justin Thomas, who played his best game of the season Saturday, effectively reading the option while leading the Jackets with 84 rushing yards and 136 passing yards on just 13 pass attempts.

The Tigers, national finalists a year ago, thrashed the Jackets 43-24 a year ago.

“They beat the slop out of us a year ago,” Johnson said. “Wasn’t as close as the score.”

While the Tigers offense has been uneven, the Clemson defense has remained fierce. The Tigers are sixth nationally in yards per play (3.68) and fourth in third-down conversion rate (17.8 percent).

Tech popped into the “also receiving votes” pool in both the media and coaches polls for the first time this season, receiving the 35th most votes in both. Thursday night, the Jackets will enjoy a national stage on a night unencumbered with other college games.

“I think it’ll be fun,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere, a great crowd. We’re going to be ready to play.”

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